I was 16, he was 18. We took a walk in the cherry orchard on the hill above my house; it was in bloom and the scent of the pink blossoms was as thick as frosting in the air. He waited until we were deep in the trees, for as far as we could see the cotton-candy puffs were arranged in neat rows, with soft long grass between; the air was sweet and carried an ambient twitter and buzz. "I love you, I love you, I love you," he crowed, as though he couldn't contain the words any longer. As if it was the most urgent message, the warning of a fire, the imminent attack of a tiger, the goodbye before drowning. "I love you." I caught the words and twisted them around in my mouth, like the stem of a maraschino cherry. I can tie a knot in this stem with my tongue, and I did, and then parted my lips and said it back, "I love you, too."
From then on, and through my early 20's, I shared "I love you's" with abandon. Relationships were lustful - I'd plow into new ones recklessly and within weeks proclaim my deepest feelings. Love was a giant reservoir! A reservoir that was so deep you couldn't see the bottom. It was so deep that I sucked up barrels of it and dumped them on unsuspecting, and mostly, unworthy, men. Love was easy and I was confident. I was naïve.
And then love waned, and, at some point, it died. The men I was with didn't say it anymore. And neither did I. Love was fraught. It came in concert with other complicated feelings, many of them weird and problematic. Love was a weapon. It was dangerous in the wrong hands. Even, possibly, fatal in others. Best not to feel it, share it, anymore.
It's been at least 8 years since I've said "I love you" to a partner.* And as much as it was a part of a decade of my life, I can't really remember what it's like. To feel love, to be loved. Each time I get involved with a new relationship, I'm confused: is this it? Is this love? I don't recognize it anymore. As a result, I've misidentified it - I thought those broad shoulders and that tone of voice and that gut flutter were it. But they weren't. Is that smile, that kiss, that chemical fire of chemistry it? No? Then where is it? What is it? How can I know, so if it comes again, I will take care of it? I've been trying to decipher, to dissect, the pieces parts. Perhaps if I can tell what they are, individually, when the person, the time, presents itself, again, I can reassemble love, reverse engineer it. I can make love out of what I do know, instead of what I don't.
Here is what I have so far:
In early May, throw on a swimsuit and head up to the hot springs. Let the warm water, the sun on your skin, remind you what it's like to be touched. Let yourself burn. The tops of your knees, your feet. Watch the freckles darken on your shoulders. Your chest. Put your sunglasses on and lay flat on the lounge chair. Wait until your scalp is sore, your nose is scorched. When the backs of your knuckles and your soft inner thighs are pink and tender, rinse off in a cool shower. Like love, the fine spray will tickle, isolating, stimulating, each of the nerve endings on the surface of your body. That night when you go to bed, notice the soft cotton against your hot skin. The tiny fingers of the feathers in your pillow will hold your heavy, tired head aloft. Relief and comfort. Like love.
Go to the woodpile. Find the oldest, weather-worn, rough piece of wood. Rub your dominant hand against the grain until a splinter pierces your palm. Go about your day. As you drive, hold a pen to write a note, pick up the grocery bag, grasp your water bottle, the sliver will lodge deeper. It will remind you, in a persistent, slightly irritating way, that it is there; it is something part of you, but not of you, and it needs tending. Like love.
Tip your barista. Kiss your sister's baby. Pet your neighbor's dog. Laugh at your boss's stupid joke. Buy lunch for a friend, a drink for a co-worker. Let someone cut in line. Take your mom to dinner and a show. Send a letter. Call your aunt. Remember a birthday, an anniversary. Take a compliment. Yield. Merge. Wave. Be generous, kind, patient, like love.
Go to the state fair at the height of summer. Indulge in a foot-long corn dog with extra mustard. Wash the salt and grease from your lips with a tangy lemon-shake-up. Get in line for the Tilt-a-Whirl. Sit on one side of the curved hard plastic seat. For maximum twirl throw your weight in the direction of the turn as the ride rolls and spins with a rackety clang. Keep your wits about you, your stomach in check, but empty your lungs in a scream. You'll feel the ground beneath you shift, your sense of balance will be thrown. You'll feel sick. Slightly worried. Like love.
Say, "please" and "thank you." Say, "I'll try." Say, "I understand." Say, "I will." Say, "yes." Like love.
Invite only your best friends for a party. Get everybody sufficiently soused. Turn the music up too loud. Play limbo and Twister and Cards Against Humanity. Laugh loudly with your teeth showing. Silly. Giddy. Happy. Love.
On a cold winter night, when the moon is just a thin line, drive out to the country. Find a road that goes straight to the horizon. Accelerate. Accelerate. Then switch off your headlights and careen through the darkness. With only the pinpricks of the stars to light your way, you'll be exhilarated. Afraid. Like love.
Take all the money out of your bank account. Give half of it to the local animal shelter. Drop the rest into the river, from the bridge, one bill at a time. You will have sacrificed everything you have for a good cause and for nothing at all, in equal measure. Just like love.
*Unless you count Rocco, which I don't, because he was an actual sociopath, and sociopaths fake everything and say what they think they're supposed to say because they are parrots - crazy manipulative relationship parrots.